This has been a renaissance year for the black gangster. HBO’s The Wire has reached a critical tipping point, earning the fictional kingpins of the West Baltimore cocaine trade some long overdue middlebrow respect. Meanwhile, hip-hop’s crime-fiction subgenre is peaking with a series of albums that dissect drug dealing in vivid detail. There’s even crossover between the two: Wire actors appear in hip-hop videos, while the show gets its musical references right— a recent subplot turned on the difference between New York and Baltimore hip-hop (not knowing it gets you killed). But the differences are revealing, too.
The year’s biggest-selling hip-hop album so far, T.I.’s King, takes the perspective of a drug lord who can’t quite let the game go. The year’s most critically acclaimed, Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, is named after a fine grade of cocaine. And now, Clipse and Young Jeezy are coming out with albums that describe, with loving care, the highs and lows of slinging rock.
Of course, hip-hop has long trafficked in drug imagery. What’s new is the narrative ambition: These albums are epics—crack rock operas, if you will. They won’t be hailed as sociological portraits of urban decay, but that isn’t why we watch The Wire either. We watch The Wire because it takes its gangsters seriously, allowing them to transcend their profession. If you set aside the fact that Stringer Bell, the beloved drug lord who was killed in season three, destroyed lives daily, any office striver can relate to his Machiavellian schemes.
If Pusha T and Malice, the Virginia emcees who form the Clipse, were Wire characters, they would be Marlo Stanfield, the ice-cold killer who currently rules West Baltimore. On their 2002 debut, Lord Willin’, they introduced themselves as grown-up crack babies. On their long-awaited follow-up, Hell Hath No Fury, they enunciate with diamond-hard clarity, take out rivals without a second thought, and dream of alliances with rival kingpins.
Pusha calls himself a “young black Socrates,” and his and Malice’s lyrics live up to that boast: They can make a stack of cocaine bricks sound like the Grail (“Open the Frigidaire / 25 to life in here / So much white / You might think your Holy Christ is near / Throw on your Louis V Millionaires / To kill the glare”) and a drug cartel seem like empowerment (“Hello New World”).
They differ from Marlo in one key respect, however: They have trouble sleeping. Hell Hath No Fury can be heard as a cautionary tale, and it concludes with the paranoid soul track “Nightmares,” in which Pusha confesses his fears. In a sense, this functions as a moral hedge—as you enjoy vicarious thrills, you get to nod ruefully at the degradation—a trick that also works for The Wire.
The production by the Neptunes harks back to the eerie minimalism of early nineties New York hip-hop—echoing pianos, sinister synthesizers, rattling drum machines. If that suggests the jangly aftermath of a crack high, the Atlantan rapper Young Jeezy is zoning out on the first hit. “Jeezy like to grind,” he informs us on his second major-label album, The Inspiration, and grind is what his music does: Remorseless and monumental, it simply rolls over you; Jeezy’s voice is poured gravel.
Jeezy’s not too bright, and plenty thuggish, but he has an everyman appeal—albeit that of an everyman drug dealer. His counterpart on The Wire would be Bodie, the stoic soldier who works the corners, never betrays his bosses, and never aspires to greater things. For ambition, Jeezy substitutes a naïve obsession with authenticity. Suspicious of art, he disparages rappers (as do the Clipse, although in their case it’s because drug dealers make more money). On his debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, he told us “These are more than words / This is more than rap”; his latest mixtape includes a rant about his real-life dealing credentials; a track on his new album, The Inspiration, reminds us that “I’m the Realest.” Congratulations.
This is a sort of warped class solidarity—and after a certain point, it becomes repugnant—and it writes Jeezy into a corner. If he’s not going to escape the game, then he’ll probably die in it. And, in fact, he’s already mythologizing his demise. The single “Bury Me a G” is as operatic as any Edward G. Robinson finale; over wailing voices worthy of Ennio Morricone, Jeezy leaves instructions for his burial (make sure the jeans are Evisu).
Dying, fictionally or otherwise, is the simplest way to transcend the crack-rap double bind: It both is and is not fiction. Hip-hop’s unique compact with its audience means that the scenes contained herein do bear resemblance to actual events in an emcee’s life—and thus, in interviews, Jeezy and the Clipse must constantly reference their supposed hustling pasts. Once you succeed in the music industry, you obviously lose the financial imperative to deal drugs, but you still need the credibility that doing so confers.
If you don’t, you could wind up in Jay-Z’s predicament. He began his career with Reasonable Doubt, a precursor to today’s coke concept albums, and eventually parlayed his gains into a seat at the corporate table. That makes him the Stringer Bell of hip-hop—the arch-capitalist kingpin who was trying to branch off into real estate when he was assassinated. Unable to credibly sustain the fantasy of criminality, Jay is left to venture tentatively into almost virgin hip-hop territory—adulthood—on his patchy comeback, Kingdom Come.
But maybe there’s another way. Ghostface Killah practically invented the crack rock opera ten years ago with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a collaboration with Raekwon. He has a new album of outtakes, More Fish, and it’s pretty good, but this spring’s Fishscale has the air of a godfather returning to show the new kids how it’s done. Ghostface doesn’t shrink from gangster realism—you could practically set up your own crack factory after listening to “Kilo.” But it’s impossible to hear the album as a documentary. There is surrealism, as in “Underwater,” in which Ghostface, possibly in a drug-induced haze, swims through a fish tank: “I seen rubies, diamonds, smothered under octopus / Jellyfish sharks soar, aquaproof pocketbook.” There is skeptical wisdom in lines like “Tell your crew to be easy, niggaz run around / With them fake frowns, sell ’em on eBay.” And there is Tony Starks, a superheroish alter-ego whom Ghostface introduced on Cuban Linx and plays to this day.
Ghostface’s willingness to play, to admit that this is fiction, frees him up to invent himself as that romantic figure, the gangster with a code. So in terms of The Wire, he’s Omar, the gay gunman who robs drug dealers. Fishscale is the most ambiguous of coke albums, which is another way of saying Ghost gets to have it both ways: On “Big Girl,” for instance, he lectures young women on the perils of cocaine even as he supplies it to them. The listener gets to have it both ways, too, taking pleasure in tales of drug violence without having to acknowledge that they might be, you know, real.
Hell Hath No Fury
Clipse. Re-Up Sony BMG.
Young Jeezy. Def Jam.
Jay-Z. Def Jam.
Ghostface Killah. Def Jam.